The narrator of Gayl Jones' magnificent new novel, The Healing, is Harlan Jane Eagleton, an African-American woman who discovers her ability to physically and spiritually heal herself and others. She tells her story against a backdrop of references to popular culture, sculpting a critical -- and dead funny -- discourse on identity and global politics.
The book is populated by a rich cast of characters, among them (names have always been important to Jones): Norvelle Goodling, Harlan's estranged anthropologist husband; Josef Ehelich von Fremd, an Afro-German horse dealer traveling with a bodyguard; Joan Savage, the rock star Harlan manages for a time; Naughton James Savage, a scientific researcher who is the rock star's ex-husband.
The Healing opens with Harlan riding a Greyhound bus to a small town, where she's expected to perform a public healing, offering some of the sardines she's eating ("Spirit of Scandinavia" sardines) to her neighbor reading magazines: "I'm thinking maybe she's reading Essence or one of them type magazines, you know, for the African-American woman, but it ain't, it's Scientific American and Popular Culture. It look kinda like National Geographic, 'cept it say Popular Culture. I like that National Geographic myself. But them Americans on the cover of the Popular Culture magazine with they tattoos and nose rings and sculptured and painted hairdos kinda look like the kinda folks you usedta just see in the National Geographic-type magazines. But now people all over the world look like they could be in them National Geographic-type magazines, and not just the so-called primitive peoples."
Much of The Healing celebrates difference, while also examining tendencies to denigrate, yearn for and objectify that which is perceived as other. Harlan follows her husband Norvelle, a professor of anthropology, to Africa, where he becomes increasingly infatuated with a Masai medicine woman:
"How long are we going to follow her? I asked Norvelle, as we lay on mat in a curtained-off corner of the hut.
"She's a treasure chest of medical folklore, he said. She's a treasure. Why, I could write a whole book about her."
Yet this poke at academia isn't simple satire. Jones, like Spike Lee in his best movies, lays out and inspects the facets making up a situation, rather than leaping to judgment:
"Norvelle once told me that there were certain African folk tales that never gave you an answer; they only left you with a dilemma. Dilemma tales, he called them ... They were a way of learning."
Jones' previous works, such as Corregidora and Eva's Man, navigated the territory between madness and sanity with dazzling skill in their portrayal of characters struggling to dismantle structures of terror. Portions of The Healing just trace the borderlines of sanity (Harlan discovers her gift when she's stabbed by someone close to her). Yet Jones here seems more focused on a different type of social commentary. Perceptions of topics as disparate as the architecture of fast-food establishments, the difference between male and female saints, and disparate popular icons (ranging from Prince Charles to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince) thread through this novel in a way that binds them closely together.
Naughton James discusses his decision to be a research scientist, as opposed to a political activist: "... after you devote your intellect to the race problem others come asking you, whites and blacks, why haven't you invented any rocket ships, sent men to the moon and the other planets, developed any new theories of the universe, built great cities ..."
And there's Harlan's bafflement at readers' preference for linear plots: "Lotta readers say they don't understand them flashback scenes. You got to always explain them flashback scenes. They just understand that chronological order. Seem like to me anybody seen a modern movie, even them old-time modern movies, would understand a flashback scene. Or if you listen to jazz, seem like you'd understand them flashback scene."
This novel approaches the personal and political in a manner that rejuvenates; its title not only refers to the narrator's gift, but to the healing that comes when cramped categories of understanding are expanded.
If you read one book this summer, let this be it.
E-mail comments to [email protected].